Saturday, November 3, 2007

Beautiful Katamari vs. Katamari Damacy and We Love Katamari - A Comparitive Review

Once upon a time in a barren wasteland of generic beat-em-ups and poorly controlling first person shooters and yearly sequels of sports franchises there was born a game called Katamari Damacy. It gained an obsessive cult following as fans were attracted to the sublime game play and the charming world it presented. Its designer, Keita Takahashi, responded to the praise with a game titled We Love Katamari which was built around the fan response to the first game. At the end of We Love Katamari, though, he said that it was the end. Katamari was fun but he couldn't live trapped by his creation's success, releasing more and more generic follow ups until they reached We Are Sick Of Katamari. The development team was disbanded and there would be no more Katamari. But the idea would not die. The publisher revived the concept for the new generation of console systems and Beautiful Katamari was born. Takahashi did not return, however, and development went forward without him.

The idea behind all of these games is that there is a small ball called a Katamari. When the Katamari touches something smaller than it then that object sticks to it and becomes part of the Katamari. As the Katamari is rolled it collects objects becoming larger and larger; you go from picking up paper clips to getting pencils to cats to televisions to people to cars to houses to mountains. When the Katamari is large enough it can be transformed to a heavenly body to replace one that is missing in the sky (for reasons that are different in each game). It's simple but engaging; there's a feeling of peace that builds as you clear away clutter and bring everything together that you just don't get when playing most games.

There's a fallacy that some people hold that a game must be challenging to be good. They think that if a game doesn't make you sweat then it can't be any good. The reason for this line of thought is that there are a lot of games that aren't very good because they are so easy. The problem with this line of thinking is that it doesn't connect with what makes a game fun. There's different answers for every given game and sometimes it will be the challenge to overcome but in Katamari Damacy it was the collecting that was fun and this is why Beautiful Katamari fails.

Beautiful Katamari plays like someone made it to be Katamari on hard mode. It was a complaint from people who did not like the earlier games that they were too easy. It's a fair complaint since in Katamari Damacy I know of people only failing on two levels while the rest they manage to build up with time left over. Beautiful Katamari tightens up the time limits and makes most of the stages more difficult and this is a bad thing. You can no longer poke around the level and see the cute gags that were seeded into each environment. They give you a type of object that you're supposed to collect which gives you a focus that the game didn't need and since the world is seeded with those types of objects you'd have to really work to fail that goal. The result is that Beautiful Katamari is not a relaxing game to play.

In addition Beautiful Katamari effectively eliminates the special challenge stages (there are two left, one that is unlocked after ending the game) so the only thing you do is roll as fast as you can. Katamari Damaci was about rolling and building up with about a quarter of the game being diversions while We Love Katamari featured many variations on the theme and this makes Beautiful Katamari feel like a huge step backward.

That's not the only area they went backward on. While the environments are more seamless than they have been in Beautiful Katamari they are also much more limited than they were before. Katamari Damacy featured effectively three major environments which were changed and scaled depending on the stage. We Love Katamari expanded that greatly (I'm not certain of the exact number but it was closer to a dozen environments that were more limited in scope). Beautiful Katamari has three basic starting areas that link to two towns that are a short roll away from each other when you hit the 3-meter mark. There's more variation than in Katamari Damcy when you're smaller than 1-meter but the variation becomes less and less as you grow and so the whole world feels smaller.

Guiding you in this is the all powerful and extremely whimsical (in every sense of the word) King of All Cosmos who in previous games would offer comments on your performance as you play or comment on the objects you have collected. He must have gone on lithium for Beautiful Katamari since his manic energy is almost completely missing. It's a small complaint but it is one more missing element that was charming in the original games.

But they've added a highly promoted online multiplayer! Which is a feature which I highly doubt any Katamari lover was looking for. Katamari isn't about competition and the previous multiplayer modes felt like after thoughts. It's another sign that they were looking for a more aggressive Katamari.

Beautiful Katamari is like Katamari Damacy filtered through a bad funhouse mirror. There's still some of that charm but it's warped by the efforts to update the game. I don't need the game to be identical, I found We Love Katamari to be a great extension of the themes of Katamari Damacy, but this was a weak effort. Unless you're a crazed Katamari fan I'd recommend sticking to the Playstation 2 games.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Review - Stranger in a Strange Land

Stranger in a Strange Land
by Robert Heinlein
1962 Hugo Winner for Best Novel

Free love! (That one's for the Google hits.) You can tell we've hit the 1960's with the Hugo winning novels when the sex, drugs, and rock and roll start showing up. Okay, there's not a lot of rock and roll in Robert Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land and not that much in the way of drugs either but there's a hell of a lot of indiscriminate sex going on. In the end isn't that what really counts?

Stranger is about Michael Valentine Smith who is the only survivor of an attempt to colonize Mars. He is the son of two members of the mission and was born on Mars. When the rest of colony died Mike was taken in by the native Martians who teach him the ways of peace, love, and harmony (as well as shoving people out of the universe) before handing him off to the next group of colonists that arrive. Due to a quirk in Earth's laws Mike owns all of Mars on top of another massive fortune and the government wants to use him. Mike, who knows nothing of Earth, falls in with a sexy nurse and curmudgeony author who help him establish a life on Earth.

Mike follows the innocent abroad plot, wandering the earth and learning about humanity, until he decides that he needs to make Earth more like Mars. He then creates a cult which he uses to spread Martian teachings before meeting the ultimate fate of all messianic characters. (I've been avoiding spoilers in these books descriptions, but he's a Christ-figure; if you don't know how that story ends then you haven't been paying attention to the past thousand years of western literature.)

A lot of Stranger has to do with Martian philosophy which consist of fairly generic beliefs that no one would disagree with on the broad principle but the details are things that start wars. The Martians, for example, believe in pacifism unless of course they don't like the other person in which case it's okay to wipe them from existence. A great deal of attention is paid to the use of water; someone sharing a drink with Mike is enough that he considers them to be part of himself from that point on. And then there's the sex.

Part of Mike's philosophy is that giving yourself is important and that expresses itself as having lots of sex with as many partners as possible and those partners having indiscriminate sex as well. It's the free love promise of the hippie movement except more effective since Mike and the people he chooses for his inner circle manage to push out any of the relationship entanglements that arise in real life.

In fairness I should point out that the characters involved in the cult in the book claim that some of these are not true but the observed behavior contradicts their claims. Their church is very cult like if you compare it against other real-world cults and set aside the attachments you form over the course of reading the book. Using the identifying characteristics list from the Cult Information Center you can see how it matches up. I have seen definitions of cults that are slightly different from this list before (such as the FBI's criteria which had seven requirements when I read it) but the list features most of the important aspects:

1. It uses psychological coercion to recruit, indoctrinate and retain its members.

While coercion is not used to recruit the behavior of characters afterward do make it appear that some brainwashing is involved. One technique that is explicitly stated in the novel and is used in many cults is the idea of secret teachings that are only available to people who advance in standing in the cult.

2. It forms an elitist totalitarian society.

They live in a compound that is completely controlled by Mike and look down on the lowly humans who just don't get their ideal Martian ways. I think this one is covered pretty explicitly.

3. Its founder leader is self-appointed, dogmatic, messianic, not accountable and has charisma.

Mike set up the whole thing, they certainly hang on every statement Mike makes as absolute truth, he could hardly be any more messianic if he was nailed to a tree, and the whole thing is built on his perfect charisma. Again it's self-evident.

4. It believes 'the end justifies the means' in order to solicit funds recruit people.

They break quite a few laws for the sake of getting their message out; sounds like justification to me.

5. Its wealth does not benefit its members or society.

Now this one I can't directly justify since their communal living doesn't really allow for it one way or the other.

So even if you don't think that the group at the end of the novel isn't a cult it's very hard to argue that they're not extremely cult-like. I found their vision of remaking Earth into Mars philosophically and suppressing anyone who was different from them (fascist hippies?) to be rather disturbing even if Heinlein didn't intend it to be.

An expanded version of Stranger in a Strange Land has been available for about fifteen years now which I have not read. My personal feelings on novel expansions like that are that they tend to not be very good and I avoid them. The original work is a classic and was edited to allow the book to flow smoothly. Adding back text that had been removed tends to make a book like one of those bloated monsters that authors who become to big for editors to control release. The version released in the sixties was the version that gained the attention and acclaim and that's what I would advise someone who has not read the book before to get.

The growth of Michael Valentine Smith throughout Stranger in a Strange Land makes it a powerful novel even if I didn't like where it ended. You don't have to look hard to see how Stranger in a Strange Land impacted the culture of the 1960's and for that reason alone I'd recommend reading it. But even if it didn't there's still a great story there and it's well worth examining.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007


This evening is going to be rather busy for me so my thoughts on Stranger in a Strange Land will be up tomorrow (short version: love the first two parts of the book but didn't like it when the protagonist forms a cult; details on that and why its a cult even when he claims it isn't tomorrow). Still I wanted to say that I have finished my project. I have completed reading all fifty-five Hugo winning novels (along with most of the books that preceded them for the ones that were part of a series). I have decided that I will read all of the Nebula winners but I'm letting myself catch up on other reading before I move on. Someone gave me a copy of Dickens's Dombey and Son which I've never read and I'm looking forward to digging into. One of the books reminded me of how little I know about Napoleonic history and I want to fill in the gaps in my knowledge there (I know the basics of the military tactics from war games but none of the context; and that the grognards used margarine). There's several authors who I was not familiar with before reading their Hugo winning work that I'm now following up on. There's a stack of books that have piled up waiting for me to finish my big reading list and I'm looking forward to getting to them all.

In the course of collecting and reading the Hugo winning novels I found stuff that I should have read a long time ago, decided that one of the grand masters of science fiction was absolutely not to my taste, found out that edgy alternative musicians like unicorn and rainbow bookplates, determined that people who use certain library systems have no taste (though I'm grateful to them for the first edition of one rather famous work that had never been read and a beautiful collector's edition of another that had only been read once), discovered a new arch enemy, encouraged the wrath of my mail person, and generally had a good time. I have to recommend it to any science fiction fan.

I'm going to continue the reviewing pace of twice a week but I've been thinking about doing a third one of shorter works (the short fiction or the dramatic presentation) once a week. I wouldn't bother trying to stay in order for those simply because there's a lot of the short fiction, the novellas in particular but there are others, that have never been collected and will be difficult to obtain. Still, I'm going to be reviewing these award winners for a long time to come.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

They're Clearly Pandering to Me Now

Today there was the announcement of not one but two new projects by Mystery Science Theater 3000 alumnus. Jim Mallon, producer of the show and the voice of Gypsy, and Paul Chaplin are reviving on November 5 with animated adventures of the bots. Meanwhile Joel Hodgson, Trace Beaulieu, and Josh Weinstein (that would be Joel, Crow, and the original Tom Servo respectively) announced Cinematic Titanic which would be riffing films. They're sketchy on details at the moment but it sounds like they're licensing movies and doing DVD releases.

I don't hold very high hopes for the official MST3k project. Jim Mallon is the force behind it and in my mind he was not one of the creative forces behind the series. Flash animated webisodes about the bots without Kevin Murphy (voice of Tom Servo for most of the series), Trace Beaulieu, or Bill Corbett (voice of Crow for the last few seasons) just doesn't excite me. Have flash animated webisode revivals ever been good?

Cinematic Titanic, on the other hand, could be very good. Besides bringing back the original crew they've also arranged for Frank Coniff and Mary Jo Pehl to help with some of their movies. They're presenting their first work at a special screening for LucasFilm as well which points to a link between their first film and one of LucasFilm's bombs (Howard the Duck, perhaps?). They're aiming for a lower grade of film than Mike Nelson's Rifftrax which I know that I'll enjoy.

I don't think there's anyone involved with MST3k that is not working on something that ties back to the original show now. I can't think of another cult show that has managed such a dramatic revival; I suspect it's because making fun of bad movies is universal.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Review - A Canticle for Leibowitz

A Canticle for Leibowitz
by Walter M. Millar Jr.

1961 Hugo Winner for Best Novel

For bad science fiction writers the fall of the Soviet Union was reason for despair. Without a cold war there was no justification the post-nuclear war novels that had been pumped out for decades. There's only a handful of nuclear war novels that I consider worth reading and only three that I think are truly great: Alas, Babylon; On the Beach; and A Canticle for Leibowitz. Canticle was the only one of those to win the Hugo award due mainly, I suspect, to Walter Miller initially publishing part of it in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction several years before.

Canticle is formed of three linked novellas detailing life in abbey located in the southwestern United States following a nuclear war. Leibowitz was one of the men involved in the development of the weapons that scoured the earth and for penance he became a Catholic monk and formed an order dedicated to collecting and preserving knowledge. The first third of the novel presents a world still deep in a dark age and details efforts to have Leibowitz declared a saint. The middle section of the novel features a renaissance as knowledge is being recovered but the new thinkers do not like the idea that a religious order would have a storehouse of knowledge greater than any in the world. The final section deals with the threat of the cycle starting over once more with a new nuclear war looming but the church is taking greater steps for the preservation of knowledge and life.

There are things that link all three novels tightly. The history of the abbey grows as the novel progresses and events of the earlier pages are the distant legends of the later. The deeds of the characters are remember but not reasoning or detail so the timid monk who patiently works for decades on an illuminated manuscript is remembered a bold figure. There is a hermit who may be human mutated to immortality, Saint Leibowitz guiding his order over the centuries, the biblical Lazuras acting as the Wandering Jew, or just three similar characters who appears through all three novellas. The Wandering Jew explanation lends some strength to the third novella since he is charged with waiting until Christ returns and He only has a few days to get back before there is nothing left for him to return to. I didn't find the three novella structure to be a problem simply because of how well each novella built on the previous structure.

The theme of preservation runs throughout the entire book. The order works to preserve documents against decay, their way of life against a world that's changing, and life against absolute despair. Even the Catholic church tries to preserve itself despite the loss of Rome. This is different than simply survival that is the focus of most post-nuclear war novels. The survival requirements of the abbey are cared for and they are working to do something more than simply survive. The preservation efforts are necessary at first but as the book goes on it becomes more questionable. Saving the knowledge of the past is worth it, but is saving that hoard of knowledge against a society that has a reached a point where it can be used worth it? And what about a life that is doomed to a slow, painful death? Miller doesn't offer easy answers to the questions he raises but he does put the reader in a position to understand them.

Miller's book is a hopeful one. Civilization has been smashed but it's coming back step by step over the course of centuries. Even in the end with a more devestating war looming hope endures. Millar doesn't chronicle the destruction of our world and his characters don't spend their time mourning the ashes of it. It gives Canticle a very different tone from most other post-apocalyptic novels.

I also appreciated the depth of the Catholicism featured in the novel. The details of the medieval monastic life, the canonization process, and the requirements of baptism play central roles in the book. There's a general lack of quality religious science fiction (for certain obvious reasons) and the foundation of religion that Canticle is built on makes it stand out.
A Canticle for Leibowitz stands above the hundreds of nuclear war novels that found their way into science fiction for the forty years that the cold war raged for its depiction of a resurrection of humanity. While the fears that it grew out of are outdated (we're much more likely to see a limited exchange now than the planet wiping potential of the cold war superpowers) the themes make it well worth reading.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Free Game Sunday - GnuGo

The game of Go has existed in something very close to its present form for nearly four thousand years but it's only been in the past fifty years that it has gained any wide spread attention outside of Asia. It is arguably the most challenging strategy game in the world to play well as its huge play area and options blow just about anything else away.

I can give you the rules for Go in a handful of sentences. The game is played on a 19 by 19 grid with players alternating placing white and black stones. The players are attempting to surround territory and any stones completely surrounded by the opponent's color are removed from the board. The game ends when both players pass and choose not to add stones (usually because there is no further advantage to be gained by playing) and the scores are essentially the area that the player has surrounded minus the number of stones their opponent has captured (there's also a handicap added to one player to allow for the advantage of going first). There's a few more rules for particular circumstances but that's the basics.

Playing Go on a computer has been a thorny problem for AI for a long time and at this point computer Go can play at the level of a typical amateur. GnuGo doesn't do a bad job at this and it's a good program to use for a player who wants to just try playing the game. Particularly helpful for the new player is the ability to scale the board down (9 by 9 is a usual size for people just beginning to play).

Most users will also want to get the glGo interface which adds a GUI to the AI provided in GnuGo. glGo also is configured for connecting to IGS-Pandanet, a popular source for playing Go online.

Go is one of the most challenging games to play that I've ever encountered. Despite the fact that the rules can be summed up in five sentences there is a great depth to the game. You could study it for years and many players do. GnuGo doesn't offer a tutorial to help you over the rough spots of starting out but it is the best Go game you're going to find for a PC.